In a parliamentary debate in early June about Covid, Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga said that Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan had been 'imposing strong restrictions on privacy rights.’ Whether by mistake or on purpose, Suga had crossed the Rubicon of acceptable China-Japan diplomatic language by implying that Taiwan was a country. If it was a mistake, it was one he repeated several times.
China’s response was immediate. A foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, accused Suga of a flagrant breach of ‘the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement and its solemn and repeated commitment of not seeing Taiwan as a country.’ It is a precious tenet of China’s foreign policy – indeed it is written into their constitution – that Taiwan is only their province.
‘There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory,’ declared Wang Wenbin. He warned that ‘the Taiwan question bears on the political foundation of China-Japan relations, the basic trust and good faith between the two countries and the international rule of law and justice.’ Incidentally, invoking the law is comical given China's flagrant breaches of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea in their illegal occupation of the South China Sea.
So it is against this tense background that today’s bilateral meeting between Japan and Taiwan takes place. The two will discuss joint security issues, but the talks are of even greater importance given the past week’s events in Afghanistan, after which Taiwan could be forgiven for assuming that Biden’s America can no longer be relied upon to support its allies.
At present Japan’s relationship with Taiwan is defined by Japan’s 1972 Joint Communiqué with China, which declared that Taiwan was an ‘inalienable territory’ of the People’s Republic of China.
Japan had not been the worst colonial master of Taiwan. Just ten years after the Qing dynasty had made Taiwan a province of Imperial China, they were forced to cede it to Japan after the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Japan was determined to make China a model colony as part of its long drive to subjugate Southeast Asia, culminating in the Second Sino-Japanese war from 1937-1945. By then Formosa (as Japan renamed Taiwan) was a prosperous half-Japanised colony. This good relationship partly convinced the US army to give Taiwan a miss as a base from which to bomb or prepare for the invasion of Japan at the end of the second world war. Lucky Taiwan, as it turned out.
Arguably, Japanese management of Taiwan was much preferred to that of Chiang Kai Shek’s retreating Kuomintang forces as they fled Mao’s advancing armies on the mainland and brutally occupied the island. Many Taiwanese came to regret the departure of the Japanese, and the aphorism ‘dogs go and pigs come’ became well known during the postwar period.
Relations between Japan and Taiwan since 1972 have been extremely cordial, bar a minor dispute over ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the potentially resource-rich East China Sea. Indigenous Taiwanese still favour Japan while the former Kuomintang nationalists and their descendants pragmatically accept their against a common enemy: China). But recent utterances by Japan’s leaders have moved this relationship on apace.
At the end of July, the US, Japan and Taiwan held an inaugural Trilateral Strategic Dialogue meeting to discuss China’s aggressive expansionist policies. Its senior adviser, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, warned that democracy in Taiwan was under threat. ‘What happened in Hong Kong must never happen in Taiwan,’ he declared and went on to say that he found ‘the unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea and East China Sea concerning.’
Despite Japan’s shifting interest in Taiwanese security, a promise of military intervention in case of Chinese attack is not on the cards. It would be a surprise if anymore more than a formulaic press release came out of today’s talks. Nevertheless the Japan-Taiwan bilateral meeting marks an important change in their relationship. It is a shot across China’s bows regarding Taiwan’s de facto if not de jure independence.
Given China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping’s openly declared intention to retake Taiwan in the not-too-distant future, combined with Biden’s ill-advised abandonment of Afghanistan, Japan may least at least imply a threat of intervention if an assault is launched on Taiwan. Whether it would actually do so is another matter. But given the events of the last few weeks, the same question could be asked of Biden’s America.